Monday, April 21, 2014

What Is So Spatial About the NGSS? (Part 2)

During my last post, I laid out my argument for why we should think about the NGSS in spatial terms.  So now the obvious question is "So what?".  Why should we teach our students to think spatially?  Can it even be done?  Aren't these abilities set at birth?  

The ability to conceptualize the world in spatial terms has been strongly linked to success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related careers. A longitudinal study published in 2009 (Wai, 2009) details 50 years of research that solidifies this relationship. It showed that students with high spatial 
ability tended to choose STEM related careers at a very high rate.  As with many intellectual abilities, the perception that spatial ability is a fixed set of mental attributes has been overturned. Several studies have shown that a  student’s spatial ability can be cultivated through practice and meaningful application (Lee, 2009; Lubinski, 2010; Levine, 2005; Sorby, 2006) . However, spatial thinking has been largely ignored by public education with a focus on verbally or lecture based instruction being the norm. When spatial thinking is discussed, it is often maligned as a skill set relegated to trades and industries (i.e. carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, automotive repair) and not worthy of intellectual pursuit. However, some of the best minds of our time can trace their successes to the application spatial thinking. Albert Einstein once said that “The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanisms of thought” and later concluding that his thoughts “are more or less clear images.” Nikola Tesla, a dynamic inventor who created the basis for alternating current, was rumored to be able to mentally build his inventions and visualize the working parts (Chandrasekhar, 2006). The reality of DNA’s double helix could not have been conceptualized except for the spatial cognition of Watson and Crick. However, as can be deduced from the examples given, there is a perception that ability to conceive of objects and their relationships in space is a white male dominated trait. This then begs the question of whether underrepresented populations (female, African-American, and Hispanic) in the STEM fields possess the capacity for spatial thinking and if so, what hinders its expression?

Several recent studies have concluded that the limiting factor influencing success in STEM programs regardless of sub-group is a lack of access to spatially related activities (Ault, 2010; Dixon 1995; Sorby 2012; Study 2004). Given the opportunity to think spatially, underrepresented populations perform as well as majority populations. It can therefore be speculated that the achievement gap cannot be overcome until the opportunity gap is overcome.

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Dixon, J. K. (1995). Limited English Proficiency and Spatial Visualization in Middle School Students Construction of the Concepts of Reflection and Rotation. The Bilingual Research Journal, 221-247.
Janelle, D. G. and M. F. Goodchild (2011). Concepts, Principles, Tools, and Challenges in Spatially Integrated Social Science. In Nyerges, T.L., H. Couclelis, and R. McMaster (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of GIS & Society. Sage Publications. pp 27-45
Lee, Jongwon; Bednarz, Robert. Effect of GIS Learning on Spatial Thinking Journal of Educational Psychology. v33 n2 p183-198 May 2009
Lubinski, D. (2010). Spatial ability and STEM: A sleeping giant for talent identification and development. Personality and Individual Differences, 344–351.
National Research Council.  Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006. 1. Print.
Susan C. Levine, Marina Vasilyeva, Stella F. Lourenco, Nora S. Newcombe, and Janellen Huttenlocher.  Socioeconomic Status Modifies the Sex Difference in Spatial Skill Psychological Science November 2005 16: 841-845, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01623.
Sorby, S. Gender Differences in Spatial Reasoning Skills and Their Effects on Success.
Sorby, S. (2012). AC 2012-3305: Spatial Skills Among Minority and International Engineering Students. American Society of Engineering Education.
Study, N. E. (2004). Assessing Visualization Abilities in Minority Engineering Students. American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition (p. 11). Petersburg: American Society for Engineering Education.
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Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N.S. (2012, June 4). The Malleability of Spatial Skills: A Meta-Analysis of Training Studies. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028446

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial Ability for STEM Domains: Aligning Over 50 Years of Cumulative. Journal of Educational Psychology, 817-835

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